Back in November, the St. Louis Cardinals were rumored to have interest in free-agent starter Jon Lester. There were rumors of a Cardinals-Lester meeting, but the in-person get-together never occurred. Nonetheless, if Buster Olney is to be believed, it appears as if the Cardinals' interest in the lefthander was a bit more than due diligence. Apparently the the Cardinals shared with Team Lester just how wide they were willing to open DeWallet:
In STL's talks with Lester, indicated willingness to discuss something in $120m range, no higher. Gives some idea of payroll mindset now.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 12, 2015
This report redefines general manager John Mozeliak's professed opportunism.
The Cardinals have money to spend. Of course, we already knew that. Chairman Bill DeWitt shared as much in the aftermath of the Cardinals' 4-1 NLCS loss to the Giants. The Cardinals brass puts together three- and five-year payroll plans. They're soft plans, allowing for some flexibility as need dictates. As of October, the Cardinals' three-to-five-year plan was to increase payroll into the $130 million range in order to accommodate the increasing price tags for the club's homegrown talent.
Things have changed since then. Oscar Taveras died in a car accident. The Cards traded Shelby Miller (and Tyrell Jenkins) for Jason Heyward (and Jordan Walden). It appears as if ownership and the front office are willing to accelerate the timetable for increasing payroll—at least if the player and price are right.
Olney's tweet summarizing the Cardinals' negotiations with Lester—and I feel comfortable calling them negotiations if one side is disclosing its best and final offer—gives us an indication of is just how much the Cards are able to spend on a player they view as a good fit. It would appear that the Cardinals were willing to go to a $24 million average annual value (if the salary parameters were in reference to a five-year deal) or a $20 million average annual salary (on a six-year deal). That's a hefty payroll increase in 2015 and beyond.
Why spend that much for Lester? First, he would provide them with a high quantity of quality innings (i.e., he's a good pitcher). Second, he's a lefty. And, according to FOX's Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi, the Cardinals feel a lefty would be the best fit for the righty-heavy rotation:
The Cardinals’ preference, according to sources, is to add another left-hander; hence, their interest in Hamels and Price.
Despite the club's belief that a Ned Flanders type best suits the rotation, St. Louis wisely bowed out of the bidding and allowed the Cubs to sign the 31-year-old to a six-year contract worth $155 million. With Lester in Chicago, it appears the Redbirds have moved on to targeting southpaw trade targets.
While the rumors regarding the Mizzou alumnus refuse to die, the seriousness of the Cards' interest in free-agent righty Max Scherzer is difficult to discern. $120 million isn't going to net the former AL Cy Young award winner; Scherzer is reportedly targeting a $200 million payday. Would the Cardinals recalibrate their highest offer to net Scherzer? It seems unlikely, but so did a $120 million bid for Lester in November.
Normally we have to wait longer for details regarding failed contract negotiations to leak. Olney's tweet coming with free agents still on the market offers us an intriguing bit of information regarding the Cardinals' offseason activity, both past and that which is ongoing and might yet occur. DeWallet is open, to an extent. The Cardinals' "opportunistic" approach appears to be much more aggressive than Mozeliak would have us believe.